Yesterday I posted a tweet that read, “Sam Harris is to atheism what Pat Robertson is to Christianity.” Attached was a link pointing to an article titled, “Sam Harris slurs Malala: Famed atheist wrongly co-opts teenager’s views.” My tweet was silly, but in less time than it took to delete it, I received a sternly worded email from Mr. Harris that read, “The writer misrepresented my views in every relevant respect.” He also left this writer in no doubt how he felt about being branded alongside the evangelical meteorologist. You know, the dude who attributes every inclement weather pattern to the gays in San Francisco.
My somewhat half baked apology read, “I apologize for branding you the Pat Robertson of atheism, but the rhetoric that comes from those who lean towards taking an anti-Islam position over one that questions our foreign policy does sound a little Pat Robertson/Fox News/Ann Coulter like, which ultimately serves in perpetuating errors of judgment when it comes to the use of our military.” Harris didn’t like my apology.
Since the aftermath of 9/11, Harris has been a relentless lightening rod in making the claim that Islamic terrorism starts and ends with religion. In his latest piece, “No Ordinary Violence,” Harris maintains that terrorism is rooted solely in the tenets of the Koran and belief in the afterlife, “There is only one path through the wilderness of bad ideas that reaches such “political” concerns: Islam.” Harris is a skilled quote miner who adeptly (mischievously) uses passages from the Koran to suggest suicide bombers are the norm for the Islamic faith, and that those who fly planes into buildings are, in fact, the most “pious” of the religious order, because they have chosen to dutifully carry out doctrine that is demanded by scripture.
His thesis is sneaky, for not only does it willfully ignore the power dynamics of asymmetrical warfare (terrorism is a tactic used by a militarily weaker opponent), but it also demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance of the Koran and the life of Muhammad. Muhammad authored the Koran. He didn’t write it for the purpose of global domination. He wrote it to be an instruction manual for a specific group of soldiers, and their families, living in a specific period of time for specific (mostly military) events that he was personally embroiled in. Muhammad and the citizens of Medina lived under the constant threat of being attacked by the militarily superior Mecca during the seventh century. As Commander-in-Chief of the Medina army, he was not only responsible for devising strategy, but equally for juicing his troops for the brutal realities of hand-to-hand combat. Thus why many of the suras (verses) read like Mel Gibson’s lines from the movie ‘Braveheart’. Muhammad would never have imagined that people living in the 21st century would end up taking these passages to justify the use of terrorism against unarmed citizens, nor would he have foreseen his words to have any relevance to today’s Western intellectuals. In other words, Harris is as equally ignorant of the specific contextual relevance of the Koran as are the al Qaeda foot soldiers who carry out the deeds of their politically minded superiors.
Harris contends that we are in a “bloody war with Islam,” and that “until moderate Muslims and secular liberals stop misplacing the blame for this evil, they will remain part of the problem.” C’mon, that’s what you’d expect to hear from Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends rather than the chairman of the nonprofit foundation Project Reason. Whose charter, ironically, is to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.” Nathan Lean, author of ‘The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims’, writes, “The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.”
Neo-conservatives, the right wing echo chamber, and the Israel Lobby (AIPAC) love it when atheists like Harris are ranting about Islam, because if we are kept distracted with that level of discourse, then we won’t be talking about foreign policy, nor we will be questioning the role and size of the military industrial complex.
Osama Bin Laden established al Qaeda with a very narrow agenda: to drive the U.S. military out of Saudi Arabia (the Holy Land), and to punish the U.S. for its prejudicial support of Israel. Not that our interference in the Middle East (often, not in the best interest of the citizens of those countries), and our propping up of dictators has helped promote kumbaya in the region, either. The point is the public is deprived of these meaningful foreign policy debates while Harris rants, and GOP controlled state legislatures pass bills banning Sharia law. Every time Fox News mentions the word “Muslim,” 25,000 Southerners lock their front door. Great swathes of the Old South live in great fear of a Muslim takeover. Yes, they’re crazy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I dislike Islam as much as I dislike all ancient dogma, and I have written three books critical of religion to prove it, (yes, I can hear the Sam Harris devotees readying to label me an Islamic apologist, despite the fact I am deeply troubled by Islam) but false hysteria is not conducive to addressing real causes of terrorism nor is it helpful in identifying real solutions. Declaring the Koran as the sole source of terrorism is no more sophisticated than George W. Bush declaring, “They hate us for our freedoms.” They don’t. At the risk of declaring some of my best friends are Muslims, I did reside in a Muslim country for a decade, and Muslims don’t give a hoot whether or not we download porn, drink booze, or let our wives wear a two-piece bikini. But they get mighty pissy when Israeli tanks bulldoze another Palestinian settlement, and they certainly don’t like our fighter jets doing laps in the airspace over Mecca. Also, they don’t much like our drones killing innocent civilians in countries that we aren’t at war with. While these things are happening, and while the Islamic world remains far militarily inferior, there will always be Islamic borne terrorism. Despite what is or isn’t said in the Koran. I hope Sam accepts my apology.